I cannot imagine living in a landscape without trees. I grew up with trees. A family neighbor remarked to my mother when I was about 11 years old, that she was now convinced about Darwin’s theory of evolution having seen me hanging from the branches of the trees on our street!
I had a personal challenge to climb all of them! Trees were the places where we played, swung, and did daring acrobatics and sometimes fell, got winded, and broke bones, but… we never gave up. Now, I see trees in a different light. This fall, sitting in our screened porch, I see the trees around me as neighbors.
This spring I was worried, and so were the resident crows, as power company workers trimmed a giant White Pine in a neighbor’s yard. It was just a small haircut this time but someday it will be more. This fall I rejoice in the beauty of gorgeous glowing foliage on another neighbor’s tree. We are so lucky to be surrounded by trees.
Trees have a rhythm of life as we do. This year was a low apple year for the wild trees that last year had an abundance of fruit. This is how things work in the natural world, “a season of plenty and a season of famine,” as we note in the Old Testament. I use such references because it tells me that, long ago, people noticed these same things that we notice today which gives more meaning to these changes.
We have an old apple tree in our yard which has grown over the last 30 years to be quite large. Its fruit is wormy but makes a delicious pink sauce. The tree is a shelter for birds, the blossoms entertain bees, and the local furry folk enjoy shelter and nourishment from flowers, fruits, and foliage. If we had commonsense we would have replaced such a tree long ago with one with better fruit but somehow we never did. Easier to go to a local orchard for fruit and enjoy the landscape of the older tree!
We are so fortunate to live in a climate that supports abundant tree life. And even more so when the tree population is varied with hardwoods and softwoods. As we drive north toward Maine the vision of evergreen forest extending to the skyline is exciting and maybe a little frightening. Turn around and look south and, especially in this past Fall, the overwhelming green is separated by patches of brilliant color. For people traveling south long ago, this vision of variety to the south must have been a sign of light, anticipation of something new, and the potential for easier hunting for food.
Annie Proulx, in her book “Barkskins,” introduces the reader to the ancient forests of North America, the native tribes who lived in harmony with the “woods” and the animals and plants inhabiting the land. It is a very interesting but tragic story of how the great northern forests were settled in the late 1600s by a ragtag of European settlers including business entrepreneurs and many jailbirds from France and England. The destruction of the native tribal life, the indiscriminate harvesting of the great pine trees of the northern forests for masts for European sailing ships, and the effects of introduced domesticated animals, such as pigs, on the ecology of the coastal areas, throw a special light on the European settlement of North America. A very different view of colonial settlement from that which we have read about in the histories of the Southern states or Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was rough, tough, and barely civil. It led to great wealth in developing cities such as Boston, and great waste and destruction in the great North Woods from the east coast to the Great Lakes.
Trees and economics go together in the North Woods. The descriptions in “Barkskins” relate directly to similar land use in Vermont. Trees were the early commercial life-blood of northern New England. Trees and wood were also the staples for creating a home, raising a barn, and enclosing land. The first buildings of a village were a grist mill and a sawmill, usually both water-powered, essentials for building a house and barn, and feeding a family. Food and shelter before all.
Archived collections at the Fairbanks Museum include maps of logging plots from the early 20th century showing how the Great Northern Forest in Vermont was divided into sections for harvesting and then purchased by the lumber barons of Vermont whose names appear on the map plots. It is quite staggering to see how the land was divided so completely. St. Johnsbury History and Heritage Center has a small and interesting collection of logging tools. Logging railroads, now abandoned and buried deep in forest vegetation, extended into remote areas of the northern forests to move lumber to sawmills further south. Many local families have ancestors who worked on the big river log drives, guiding the logs south to the great mills in Massachusetts. This was the heyday of the wood economy of the North.
Now we are beginning to see our woods and the great forests of other lands as more than economic bounty and scenic beauty but as a climatic necessity. Trees store carbon and release oxygen into the atmosphere and, in many places, hold the soil in place. The great rain forests of the Amazon play a huge part in the water cycles that replenish rivers and oceans, they are climate modifiers. Indiscriminate burning in the Amazon forests, to clear land for agriculture or road building, interrupts the forest canopy and impedes the beneficial aspects of the forest. Forest fires, either naturally occurring or deliberately set, have far-reaching effects on the environment and the lives of people and wildlife as we have seen so dramatically this summer, particularly in California, and last year in Australia. More of us are beginning to realize that trees not only satisfy our need for beauty but they also are essential for life on this planet, and for kids to climb.